July 25, 2011

Eavesdropping 101

Norman Mailer eavesdropped on strangers’ conversations. So did J. D. Salinger. Tim Robbins does it, too. If you browse writing tips from great authors, you'll discover that many suggest eavesdropping as a legitimate writing tool.

This idea of listening to conversations may sound appalling, but the truth is that most writers can't help but eavesdrop. When they listen, they pick up not only unique snippets of dialog but also story ideas. Add people watching, and you'll find a surfeit of characters clamoring to find their ways into books and stories.

There are several good reasons why writers eavesdrop.

If working on a story outline, then go where your characters might go. Listen, watch, and take notes. This helps to develop characters' physical descriptions and personalities. It also provides clues about how characters interact within certain settings. When eavesdropping, pay attention to the flow of the voices, the pitch, volume and cadence. Take note of slang and regional dialect. If you hear a great line, jot it down word for word. You might want to use it someday.

Maybe you're in a full-blown writer’s block and need story ideas. One way to break loose is to spend a day or two eavesdropping and people watching. Restaurants and coffee shops are perfect for eavesdropping. So are waiting rooms, hotel lobbies, and public transportation. Kid-friendly venues, like playgrounds or public swimming pools, are venues for parent-child/child-child conversations and humorous anecdotes. Quiet places, like libraries and museums, work for scholarly and serious dialog. Experiment. Take yourself on eavesdropping adventures to places you otherwise might not go.

Thornton Wilder offered the best reason to eavesdrop. He said, “There's nothing like eavesdropping to show you that the world outside your head is different from the world inside your head.” Some of the best story ideas come from observing the everyday life of people around you. As the saying goes, Truth is stranger than fiction.

I admit that I’ve been eavesdropping for years. Here are a few humorous snippets from my files:

Farmer in a rural cafe: "I nearly run over my wife in the cornfield this mornin'."
Waitress pouring coffee: “What the heck was Ruth doin’ in the cornfield?”
Farmer: “Said she was lookin’ for somethin’ that flew off the porch last night.”

Woman talking on her cell phone on the train:
"Before you fold the laundry tell Mark to take his underpants off the dog."

Doctor's waiting room:
Woman 1: "…then he went to Italy and saw the Parthenon."
Woman 2: "You mean the Coliseum."
Woman 1: “I thought he said the Parthenon."
Woman 2: "The Parthenon is in Greece. The Coliseum is in Italy. It’s where Daniel was in the lion's den."

And a few strange (but real) names I’ve gathered along the way:

Christina Pickles,
Ruby Knuckles,
Baldwin Bump, and
Pastor Peacock

So what are you waiting for? Get out there and eavesdrop!

July 19, 2011

Why Should I Keep Writing?

My friend said, “I don’t know why I keep on writing. Nobody wants to publish my work. I should just quit. Poor me. Why me?”

Okay, so my friend had a pity party. We’re all entitled to those once in a while. He didn’t realize it, but if my friend had focused on his first statement, “I don’t know why I keep on writing,” he might have found a way around his why-me woes.

Why do you write? Grab a piece of paper and make a list.

Have you wanted to write since you were five years old?

Do you dream of becoming the next Stephen King or of your children’s books winning Newbery Medals?

Do you write because you enjoy it?

Do you write to leave a legacy?

What do you love about writing?

What do you hate?

Do you write only to be published?

Do you write just wanting to earn money?

How does writing feel? Does it fill up your heart, or are you running on empty?

Whatever your reasons for writing, jot them all down. Then read your list and ponder your reasons. Really think about them.

Writing is about hope, perseverance, satisfaction, love, pleasure, faith and learning. Which of your reasons nourish these things? These are your best whys. Are they enough for you to keep on writing?

If you’re brave enough, leave a comment and tell us: Will you continue to write? Why or why not? You never know; your reasons might inspire someone else who asks, "Why should I keep writing?"

What things there are to write, if one could only write them! My mind is full of gleaming thought; gay moods and mysterious, moth-like meditations hover in my imagination, fanning their painted wings. But always the rarest, those streaked with azure and the deepest crimson, flutter away beyond my reach.
~Logan Pearsall Smith

July 8, 2011

More About Inspiration: The Descriptive Writing of Charles Dickens

A recent project sent me digging deep into the works of Charles Dickens. There, I rediscovered his obvious talent for descriptive writing. In 1833, it was Dickens’ descriptions that caught the attention of the editor at London’s Morning Chronicle and set Dickens on the path to becoming one of the most beloved authors of all time.

Here are a few examples of his descriptive text:

“I came into the valley, as the evening sun was shining on the remote heights of snow, that closed it in, like eternal clouds. The bases of the mountains forming the gorge in which the little village lay, were richly green; and high above this gentler vegetation, grew forests of dark fir, cleaving the wintry snow-drift, wedge-like, and stemming the avalanche. Above these, were range upon range of craggy steeps, grey rock, bright ice, and smooth verdure-specks of pasture, all gradually blending with the crowning snow. Dotted here and there on the mountain's-side, each tiny dot a home, were lonely wooden cottages, so dwarfed by the towering heights that they appeared too small for toys. So did even the clustered village in the valley, with its wooden bridge across the stream, where the stream tumbled over broken rocks, and roared away among the trees. In the quiet air, there was a sound of distant singing—shepherd voices; but, as one bright evening cloud floated midway along the mountain's-side, I could almost have believed it came from there, and was not earthly music. All at once, in this serenity, great Nature spoke to me; and soothed me to lay down my weary head upon the grass …”— David Copperfield

It was a chill, damp, windy night, when … [he]… emerged from his den. He … slunk down the street as quickly as he could … The mud lay thick upon the stones, and a black mist hung over the streets; the rain fell sluggishly down, and everything felt cold and clammy to the touch. … As he glided stealthily along, creeping beneath the shelter of the walls and doorways, the hideous old man seemed like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved: crawling forth, by night, in search of some rich offal for a meal. He kept on his course, through many winding and narrow ways, until he reached Bethnal Green; then, turning suddenly off to the left, he soon became involved in a maze of the mean and dirty streets which abound in that close and densely-populated quarter.[He] was evidently too familiar with the ground he traversed to be at all bewildered, either by the darkness of the night, or the intricacies of the way. He hurried through several alleys and streets, and at length turned into one, lighted only by a single lamp …. — Oliver Twist

The town was glad with morning light; places that had shown ugly and distrustful all night long, now wore a smile; and sparkling sunbeams dancing on chamber windows, and twinkling through blind and curtain before sleepers' eyes, shed light even into dreams, and chased away the shadows of the night. Birds in hot rooms, covered up close and dark, felt it was morning, and chafed and grew restless in their little cells; bright-eyed mice crept back to their tiny homes and nestled timidly together; the sleek house-cat, forgetful of her prey, sat winking at the rays of sun starting through keyhole and cranny in the door, and longed for her stealthy run and warm sleek bask outside. The nobler beasts confined in dens, stood motionless behind their bars and gazed on fluttering boughs, and sunshine peeping through some little window, with eyes in which old forests gleamed—then trod impatiently the track their prisoned feet had worn—and stopped and gazed again. Men in their dungeons stretched their cramp cold limbs and cursed the stone that no bright sky could warm. The flowers that sleep by night, opened their gentle eyes and turned them to the day. The light, creation's mind, was everywhere, and all things owned its power. — The Old Curiosity Shop

Contemporary writers sometimes use the classics as a source of inspiration. I enjoy collecting short samples of great writing. Then when I get stuck and need a model to create well-written descriptions, dialogue, or narrative, I pull out my samples for motivation.

Have you studied classic authors? How have they inspired your writing?